One Republican senator described his house painter as a “little Guatemalan man.” Another called an Indian man a “macaca,” a type of monkey.
Just as the GOP is pushing for minority voters, the two recent gaffes have fed the perception among some blacks, Hispanics and Asian-Americans that Republicans are out of touch with the changing face of the nation.
“There is disconnect at some level,” said Michael K. Fauntroy, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. “The country is becoming browner and new voters, particularly new immigrant voters, don’t respond favorably to (offensive) comments.
“They may have already missed the boat on this.”
Reports surfaced last week that Sen. Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican, called his house painter a “nice little Guatemalan man” during a June speech. Burns, whose re-election campaign is pressing for tighter immigration controls, also suggested that the man might be an illegal immigrant. It turns out the worker is legal.
Earlier this month, George Allen, a Republican senator from Virginia, twice referred to an opponent’s volunteer using a term for a monkey, considered by some to be a racial slur. “Let’s give a welcome to Macaca here,” Allen said. “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.”
Allen has since apologized to S.R. Sidarth, who was born in Virginia and is of Indian descent.
Republicans hardly have a lock on offending minorities. Former Democratic congressman and civil rights leader Andrew Young, who is black, said this month that Asian, Jewish and Arab shopkeepers in black neighborhoods sold shoddy goods to blacks and drove away their businesses. And, amid protests, the Democratic party this month pulled an advertisement from its Web site that compared Hispanic immigrants to terrorists.
But the comments by Burns and Allen have garnered heavy attention as their party is trying to improve its showing among minorities. Neither senator returned phone calls seeking comment.
“These misstatements are not reflections on the (Republican) party,” said Tara Wall, director of outreach communications for the Republican National Committee. “We’ve had a long-term commitment to inclusion.”
Wall said that since taking the helm in January 2005, RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman has “stepped up” the party’s outreach to minorities. That effort has included holding nearly 100 town hall meetings with black, Latino and Asian-American groups, she said.
The party also is strongly pushing the candidacies of black Republicans in upcoming elections: Ken Blackwell for governor of Ohio, Michael Steele for Senate in Maryland and Lynn Swann for governor of Pennsylvania.
This summer, Bush spoke at the convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for the first time in his presidency. The crowd cheered when he said many blacks don’t trust Republicans.
At last summer’s NAACP convention, Mehlman acknowledged the need to mend fences. “Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization,” he said. “I come here as Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”
Said Frances Rice, chairman of the National Black Republican Association: “I think Republicans have an excellent chance of winning over a good percentage of minority voters.”
Some say that’s already happening. In 2004, 46 percent of Hispanic men, for instance, backed Bush compared to 36 percent in 2000, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. While only 11 percent of blacks voted for Bush in 2004, it still was up from 2000.
But there’s a long way to go. Associated Press-Ipsos polls from June to August show that 81 percent of blacks, 62 percent of Hispanics and 69 percent of Asian-Americans identify with Democrats over Republicans and independents.
Outreach to minorities can ring hollow if it’s not backed by strong policies, said Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science and Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California, Irvine. “Even a candidate that says something offensive, if he then came out and advocated a path to citizenship (for illegal immigrants), then I think voters would pay more attention to that,” he said.
Immigration promises to be a key issue with Latinos in the contentious November elections. A House measure approved last year that would make it a felony for illegal immigrants to be in the U.S., helped spark massive street demonstrations this spring. Organizers have worked this summer to register more Latino voters and get those who qualify to become citizens.
Many black voters remain angry over the Bush administration’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina last summer, when thousands of New Orleans’ poorest residents, mostly black, faced deadly floods. “Katrina hurt the Republicans’ credibility with the African-American community,” said Stacie Paxton of the Democratic National Committee.
Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic strategist, agreed. “Republicans are sending mixed messages to people of color, in particular African-Americans and Hispanics. On one hand they would like us to come into the big tent. But once you get in you will see the unwelcome mat remains on the inside.”
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press